Like parachuting down the rapids, North By Northwest, has a storyline that changes at such a fast pace that you feel you’ve got to hang on for dear life. Hang on tight until it reaches its giddy climax or you’ll fall off your perch in the process. In the opening gambit, scenes from the original film version are recreated, before the stage production gathers its own momentum. As the play progresses the audience is drawn into the world of, Alfred Hitchcock, the great master of suspense.
“Hitchcock’s tight dialogue drives a high end pace. Essentially this is a story of mistaken identity… Losing our identity is something we all fear on a daily basis from online hackers,” explained David Campbell. In North By Northwest Campbell plays the lead role of Roger Thornhill, a smooth talking, suave advertising director attempting to reclaim his identity. “Roger is mistaken for a spy by the name of George Caplan & then spends the entire course of the play trying to get his identity back.”
David Campbell is an all-round star of television, radio, film and stage, whose credits include hosting the Today Extra show on channel 9 weekdays and Smooth FM radio on the weekends. The rest of his time is spent performing in musical theatre productions and recording music. Campbell has won many awards including The Helpmann Award for the role of Bobby Darrin in Dream Lover along with a ‘best actor in a musical’ award for Sunset Boulevard. Amongst his singing accolades Campbell has won The Mo Award for ‘best vocalist’ in his role as Marius in (Les Miserables). When asked if all these accolades go to his head, Campbell replied, “humility is very important and to quote lyrics by Skyhooks, ‘ego is not a dirty word.’”
Campbell is well suited to the role of Roger Thornhill, a role previously played on screen by Cary Grant. Reflecting on Grant’s performance Campbell said it was, “very high stakes at all times, harnessing comic timing like a motormouth. He’s like a duck madly paddling underwater but on top he’s a swan. Timing is everything.”
Hitchcock himself described the film version as being a study of the vagaries of the nervous system under pressure. It is uncanny how timely this production is. So many people have been fearful of the effects of vaccines on our nervous systems in recent years. And while Thornhill does not have to deal with a pandemic, he does have to deal with the terrible anxiety of being caught up in circumstances which are seemingly completely out of his control.
“Identity is something we all struggle with and nowadays we are all susceptible to losing our identities online, explained Campbell. “If that happens, it’s beyond our control and raises our anxiety levels to incredible heights.”
During the course of North By Northwest three mysterious men are after Thornhill. These mysterious men are trying to prevent Thornhill from smuggling a microfilm containing government secrets out of the US and into the hands of the Russians. In eerie shades of what is now happening during the invasion of the Ukraine? What a lead up! Do we know what is real anymore?
So much speculation on what is and what is not possible. We are now in ‘interesting times’ to quote one Chinese diplomat. As Campbell said “[this show] is all to do with geopolitical standoffs and fake news as more and more countries become weaponised.”
Hitchcock was renowned for being a meticulously detailed director, with his unique style of direction focused on creating the unexpected. If you have seen The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window or any of Hitchcock’s other films you will know that he often liked to play tricks on the mind. He does this in order for the audience to feel a similar level of disorientation as the character involved in the events unfolding before them. What a task any director has bringing this level of suspense to the stage.
Director Simon Phillips has had to find a way of, not only replicating Hitchcock’s manic attention to detail, but he has also had to make this a play of his own. For this reason there are many secrets behind the production which were kept secret, even from the cast.
“Simon wanted to create an atmosphere where the stomach gives way, a sense of vertigo is achieved and devices are flipped on their heads,” recounted Campbell.
Those familiar with Hitchcock will also be familiar with his propensity for casting a cool blonde. Some of Hitchcock’s most famous leading ladies included luminous stars such as; Grace Kelly, Kim Novak and even Doris Day. A cool blonde was a femme fatale who was able to keep her emotions under control, seduce with quiet cunning and keep the audience guessing as to her true intent. All of which are qualities Amber McMahon has had to negotiate and incorporate into her role as Eve Kendal, all whilst making it her own. In the role of Eve Kendall, Amber is cool as a cat. A panther actually. Amber manages to be seductively warm and enticing, with a few secrets of her own tucked away.
Bert Labonte as the charming but cruel and calculating Vandamm is perfectly cast. With Vladimir Putin now on the rampage in the Ukraine, Labonte has the perfect example to model his character after. Vandamm must be smooth as silk but as deadly as a cobra as he weaves his way to the final kill. Unfortunately for Vandamm though Mount Rushmore stands in the way of his prey and proves to be an impenetrable fortress. Again shades of political irony when viewed through today’s lens.
There are many tense scenes in North By Northwest which will have the audience literally on the edge of their seats. Two of which occurred when an actual crop duster lands on stage. This then happens again when the main characters are stuck atop Mount Rushmore with seemingly no way out, whilst being pursued by the bad guys.
The score is also a cliffhanger with the overture being integral to the creation of suspense throughout. This is a superb adaptation by Carolyn Burns and directed by Simon Phillips.